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Connection to Mugabe Threatens South African President's Legacy

South African President Thabo Mbeki, left, who decades ago forged ties between the exiled African National Congress and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, right, has so far failed in his bid to ease the longtime leader into retirement.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, who decades ago forged ties between the exiled African National Congress and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, has so far failed in his bid to ease the longtime leader into retirement. (By Mark Wessels -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; Page A13

JOHANNESBURG -- At first glance they are nothing alike. Zimbabwe's aging president, Robert Mugabe, is, at 84, among the last of a generation of African Big Men, clinging to power through brutal repression. South Africa's suave President Thabo Mbeki, nearly two decades younger, rules by popular mandate as the elected leader of one of the continent's most robust democracies.

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But Mbeki's long -- and so far, failed -- diplomatic bid to ease Mugabe into retirement after 28 years has tied the legacies of the two men together, and badly damaged Mbeki's reputation as the exemplar of a new kind of African president. The leader President Bush described as "the point man" on solving the Zimbabwe crisis in 2003 now is widely regarded as an obstacle to freeing that nation from its steep descent into political and economic ruin.

"I think he's part of the problem at the moment," said Willie Esterhuyse, a Mbeki friend and a professor of political philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch.

Mbeki is one of a dwindling number of African leaders unwilling to publicly distance himself from Mugabe. The two men are products of strikingly similar worlds. Both are Christian-school-trained products of African liberation movements and have deep roots in communist ideology. Both have advanced degrees from British universities and rose within their parties on the strength of wits and political savvy rather than prowess on battlefields. Neither favors the traditional African dress worn by many of the continent's leaders, appearing almost invariably in dark, tailored suits. And both enjoyed periods as favorites of Western powers, which for a time regarded each as skilled and cerebral alternatives to the populists common on much of the continent.

Mugabe's seizure of white-owned commercial farms in 2000 also struck a profound chord in southern Africa, where much of the best land and businesses remain in the control of descendants of European settlers. At Mbeki's second inauguration, in 2004, the crowd of friends, supporters and dignitaries loudly cheered Mugabe.

Such a reaction would be unlikely today, as rising repression in Zimbabwe chills even those sympathetic to Mugabe's efforts to redistribute wealth and undo the legacy of colonialism. Mbeki is almost alone among southern African leaders in not publicly voicing outrage.

Biographer Mark Gevisser, in his book "Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred," tells an anecdote that suggests an almost familial bond between the two men.

In 1980, shortly after Mugabe took power in Zimbabwe, Mbeki was there as an emissary for South Africa's exiled African National Congress. One night, he stayed out late drinking in Harare, the capital. His frantic wife reported Mbeki missing, a worrisome development at a time when South Africa's apartheid government was attempting to assassinate its opponents.

The next time the two men saw each other, Mugabe delivered a paternalistic scolding, waving his finger as he said, "Young man, you must tell us next time you don't sleep at home."

The African National Congress had traditionally favored a rival of Mugabe's in Zimbabwe's liberation struggle. But Mbeki, in those days in exile, forged a new relationship between the party and Mugabe's new government. That connection still has a powerful hold on Mbeki, according to Gevisser, who said Mbeki remains convinced that he is essential to keeping Mugabe from growing still more brutal.

"Whatever happens, he has got to keep the door open," Gevisser said in an interview.

Officials in Mbeki's administration also have expressed deep reservations about Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Zimbabwean opposition. The former miner and union activist, though very popular in his country, has little formal education and has tried to organize the kind of internal political resistance that Mbeki's African National Congress used to bring down apartheid.


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